God’s Acts of Providence (38)

Becoming the Apostle Paul (5)

Thoughts on Saul’s Conversion

In the span of three days a man of implacable will on a mission of destruction has been utterly transformed.  How can the magnitude and scope of this transformation possibly be captured in mere words?  To try is to be defeated, but still the attempt must be made.

Three days prior Saul had been a proud Pharisee, one of the most complete and zealous of practicing members of the Jewish faith.  His claim to position in that faith rested on performance with regard to living up to the Laws of Moses and the Prophets.  He was a fierce monotheist.  He had the comfort of belonging to a faith that was already two thousand years old.  He viewed gentiles as unclean beings with whom he should have as little to do as possible.  He likely viewed the Roman Empire as an evil that was oppressing his people.  He hated Jesus Christ and His followers with a passion that was unquenched by the blood of a brutal stoning.  Only the complete annihilation of this cult could bring him peace of mind.

At this point in the story Saul may not have completely realized it, but all of the above had been swept away.  Much later he would say:

If any other man thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more:  circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee, as to zeal a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law blameless.

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.  Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith; that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.  (Philippians 3:4b-11)

This is the transformation that can only be accomplished by our Great God.  Saul will be followed by countless lives equally changed beyond human understanding by the touch of our Sovereign Lord’s intervention.

Those who hate Christianity enthusiastically tar it for the sins of they who have most abused its truth.  Kings and popes, ministers and elders who have used it to serve their own selfish ends, to power and plunder, conquest and seduction, are held up as Christianity’s representatives in the court of history’s judgment.  As with all earthly sources of power, the church has drawn those seeking only that unto them.

But when Christ looks at His Church He sees the woman at the well, the tax collector, the adulteress, the denier, the murderer – all those saints famous and anonymous – who have been redeemed and reborn by His sovereign love.

The haters pay no heed to these simple saved.  For they seek not power or place for themselves.  No, these true saints recede into the background, for:

“He must increase, but I must decrease.”  (John 3:30)

And so Christ’s true Church continues on, unnoticed and unrewarded by this passing world, preaching the Gospel, practicing the Sacraments, redeeming lives, bringing light into this dark world one burning soul at a time.  What care we?  For great is our reward in heaven!

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God’s Acts of Providence (37)

Becoming the Apostle Paul (4)

In Damascus

Acts 9:10-22

9 10Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Anani’as. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Anani’as.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” 11And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire in the house of Judas for a man of Tarsus named Saul; for behold, he is praying, 12and he has seen a man named Anani’as come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.”

Ananias is an unknown character in the Christian story except for his role in bringing Christ’s instructions to the then confused and blinded man who would become the Apostle Paul.  Paul will recall him by name in Acts 22:12-16, which is the only other occurrence of his name in the New Testament.  And yet, to him Christ gave the candle that would set ablaze countless hearts, creating bonfires of love and hope that would overcome emperors, pagan gods and the hate that lives in each of us.  Was this not an errand of the greatest honor?

13But Anani’as answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to thy saints at Jerusalem; 14and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call upon thy name.”

Who can blame Ananias for his skepticism?  To all outward appearances Saul was the least likely man in the world to which any Christian should want to go.

15But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; 16for I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”

These words must have shaken Ananias to the core.  How could this be?  And, why would the Lord chose such a man, a murderer, for this great role?  And, more, what’s this about the Gentiles and their kings?

It’s of the most signal importance that the last words spoken by our Lord about Paul’s ministry are that “I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”  I wonder if Ananias interpreted it as right justice for the evil that Saul had done to the Way?

In reality, it was an announcement of the new weapon of mass destruction of evil – suffering and weakness turned by Christ’s power into instruments of inexorable love.

It started at the Cross.  Peter and the other Disciples had understood it vaguely.  The Apostle Paul would work it out in flaming letters through his life and writings.  It’s still being worked out today in countries around the world where Christianity is persecuted – power and cruelty against weakness and suffering resulting in explosive growth of Christ’s Church.

We in the West have lost touch with this dynamic, so comfortable have we become in our privileged position.  And yet, to lose touch with this is to become disconnected from the beating heart of Christianity.  Perhaps we should ask ourselves what we have suffered, or are willing to, for the sake of Christ.  I fear this question as much as anyone else, but ask it I must.

17So Anani’as departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came, has sent me that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized, 19and took food and was strengthened.

Whatever were Ananias’ misgivings, they were overcome.  He was obedient to his Lord and Savior, trusting in His will.  What if Ananias had substituted his own judgment for that of his Lord’s?  Praise be to God that this is a moot question!

For several days he was with the disciples at Damascus. 20And in the synagogues immediately he proclaimed Jesus, saying, “He is the Son of God.” 21And all who heard him were amazed, and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called on this name? And he has come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests.” 22But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ.

This brief passage provides only a hint of the chaos that Saul’s conversion must have caused in the counsels of the Way’s enemies.  It takes only the slightest exercise of the imagination to see the Sanhedrin thrown into confusion and discord as they attempted in vain to understand this inexplicable turn of events while simultaneously dealing with the angry Roman authorities with whom they had coordinated.

Saul had been the linchpin of their plan to finally deal the deathblow to this insane but impossible to stop sect.  And now, he was reported to be one of its members!  Was this a new plan?  But Saul hadn’t cleared it with them!  Could it possibly be true?  Impossible!  And yet this sect had made a habit of delivering the impossible!  They were immobilized in a state of incomprehension, their credibility with their Roman masters in tattered shreds.

And the Way, it moved relentlessly forward.

God’s Acts of Providence (36)

Michelangelo, Conversion of Saul 1542-5.jpg

Michelangelo, Conversion of Saul

Becoming the Apostle Paul (3)

The Road to Damascus

This event is the basis for Paul’s claim to full Apostleship.  Though he would admit that this office came to him as to “one untimely born” (1 Corinthians 15:8), he nonetheless claimed direct communication with the risen Christ as the motive force behind his conversion and mission.  Given what he endured and accomplished for Christ’s sake can we anything but accept him at his word, as did the primitive church?

Acts 9:3-9

9 3Now as he journeyed he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed about him. 4And he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

First, note the complete identification of Christ with His Church.  Saul was persecuting Jesus Christ Himself when he attacked the Saints who made up His Church.  If you have ever wondered where the Apostle Paul conceived the metaphor of the Church as Christ’s Body[1], wonder no more.

Second, we must wonder at the fact of this sudden, dramatic intervention of Christ into Saul’s life.  Hundreds, even thousands of millions have been converted through the quiet inner workings of the Spirit.  Why not Saul also?

Here we are on the shifting sand of conjecture.  Mine is that Christ had determined before the foundations of the universe were laid that this man’s overpowering will would meet a defeat so total, and yet so glorious that it would emerge simultaneously humbled by impossible love and empowered by irrepressible joy.

5And he said, “Who are you, Lord?”

The question must have been asked more in fear than in ignorance.  Saul was sharp enough to know the only possible heavenly source of such a question.

Note that Saul addresses the divine Questioner as Lord.  It’s as if the conversion was instantaneous and all that remains to be done is work out the details.

And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting; 6but rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”

My first response to this statement is almost disappointment.   “What, at perhaps the most dramatic, consequential conversion in the New Testament that’s all Jesus has to say?”  Why not some overpowering statement of Scriptural prophesy fulfillment or a detailed set of marching orders?  But all Christ does is identify Himself and say to continue into Damascus.

On second, hopefully deeper, Spirit filled thought, it becomes clear that Christ has said and done everything required in its perfect fullness.  First, to limit God’s work here to Christ’s words is to deny the reality of the Holy Spirit, Whose secret but all so real activity is always at play.  Second, to meet Jesus Christ is nothing like meeting a mortal human.  You are meeting the Way, the Truth and the Life, you are meeting the Word made flesh, and you are meeting the Light of the World.  For as Saul would later come to understand: For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness of life in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. (Colossians 2:9,10).

Jesus Christ touched Saul and commissioned him.  The rest of his life would be spent working out the implications of this one momentary experience.  All of his epistles only scratched the surface. It is a true testament to Christ’s power that these few words are all that were necessary to launch this Apostle’s relentless mission of love. He now continues discovering ever more to glorify and enjoy in blessed eternity.

7The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. 8Saul arose from the ground; and when his eyes were opened, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

The men with Saul heard sound, but was it intelligible?  More striking, they didn’t see the light from heaven.  When God chooses to reveal Himself He is selective.  And yet weren’t Saul’s companions also on their way to persecute Christ?

Can we but be assured that the Apostle pondered every detail of this awesome event, integrating them into the theology that would flow from his Spirit-enlightened mind?  And, the fact that he was exclusively touched by Christ’s presence while his companions were, literally, left in the dark must have left its mark.

Saul enters into a kind of proto-death, with the darkness of blindness.  The power of this encounter throws him into a state of fasting.  Although not said, we can easily imagine Saul in a near constant posture of prayer, seeking understanding for this colossal event that has turned his life upside down.

[1] Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church  (Colossians 1:24)

God’s Acts of Providence (35)

Becoming the Apostle Paul (2)

Opening Thoughts

As we open this section, Saul is on his way to Damascus, “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.”  We are compelled to inquire into the sources of this terrible fury.  Are they the straightforward causes of reaction against a heretical sect that is bringing dishonor to the Jewish religion and threatening the civil peace?  Or, in addition to these, and deeper still, are they the outward manifestation of a dreadful inner conflict?

That conflict would be no other than the Holy Spirit working within Saul to bring him to faith in Jesus Christ.  We’ve speculated about the parallel between the Centurion and Saul seeing how Christ and Stephen died, respectively.  We can also be fairly sure that a man of Saul’s powerful will would not surrender his cherished beliefs easily to the claims of a new and seemingly absurd sect.  And so, we would expect that, were there a struggle occurring within Saul for his very soul, it would erupt into view in powerful and striking ways.  This is indeed what we see.

We must take note that this is one of those points in history where the issue of man’s will and God’s sovereignty meet at the sharpness of a razor’s edge.  For was there ever a more willful man than Saul in the Bible’s record?  And, was ever a man more transformed and yet somehow, mysteriously, preserved in all his essence than was this man Saul who became the Great Apostle, Paul?  The Apostle himself thought long and deeply about this very issue.  Although we will not hear all his words on the subject in this manuscript, we will meditate on the mystery.

God’s Acts of Providence (34)

conversion_on_the_way_to_damascus-caravaggio_c-1600-1

Effectual Calling:

Becoming The Apostle Paul (1)

Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.  Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.  For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.  But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me.  Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.

(1 Corinthians 15:7-11)


59. Who are made partakers of redemption through Christ?

Redemption is certainly applied, and effectually communicated, to all those for whom Christ hath purchased it; who are in time by the Holy Ghost enabled to believe in Christ, according to the gospel.*

With the possible exception of David there is no person in the Bible about whose public and inner life we know more than the Apostle Paul’s.  This bounty of information would appear to make a study of “effectual calling” based on Paul’s life and thought a straightforward undertaking.  It is not.

It is not because there is no person in the Bible whose faith, mission, character and relationships intersected with controversy more than did those of this Great Apostle.  To engage with Paul is to encounter the deepest issues of faith with all hope for the quiet life lost.  It is to come face to face with the contradictions and frailties of human nature yet somehow redeemed and sanctified by impossible grace.  To engage with The Apostle Paul raises uncomfortable questions about the identity and meaning of Christ, about God’s sovereignty, about our responsibilities as willful creatures, about our gender relationships, about the potential for human fellowship – about every issue that vexed the Roman world and that vexes us still to this day.

Another problem is the vastness of Paul’s work, both in volume and depth.  His actions dominate the Book of Acts.  We also have a corpus of fourteen Epistles (though some are in dispute), each one a treasure trove of theological thought hidden within the shifting kaleidoscope of culture, conflict, politics, relationship and love that drove Paul’s pen by the Spirit’s Holy power.

Paul’s imprint on primitive Christianity is so powerful that some historians have declared him to be its true founder.  Such a claim would have been rejected by this slave of Christ as a terrible blasphemy.  And yet, Paul’s work, carried out on the razor’s edge of faith, politics and cultural norms, was indeed setting in motion a movement that would ultimately overcome the great Roman Empire and then much of the world beyond.

Was Paul the Great Apostle, filled by the Holy Spirit in order that he might carry the Gospel to the Gentiles?  Or, was Paul the interloper who hijacked The Way and turned it in directions never intended by its Founder?

You, dear reader, may wonder at the inclusion of such stark questions at the very beginning of this journey.  After all, Paul’s letters are safely included in every New Testament.  His words are read during worship around the globe.  But, for all that, Paul remains a figure saturated by controversy, held at arm’s length even by many in the Church, always in danger of being rejected once the next verse is read.

The early Church has spoken with one voice – he is the Great Apostle.  That is, he is not Christianity’s corruptor, not it’s true founder; he is rather its faithful vessel, carrying its anazing Good News to a dark and dying world.

The error of his critics (or are some of them admirers?) is to mistake the vessel for its filler.  The Apostle Paul was indeed the most notable vessel of this Good News that remade the world.  He was not, though, anything but that, a vessel emptied of pride, position, past fellowship – all – to be refilled with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  No one was clearer on this point than Paul himself.

This is the Apostle that I will follow, a broken and redeemed man.  So transformed by his encounter with Jesus Christ that no suffering, no barrier, no loss could possibly compare to the surpassing joy of serving his Lord and Savior.  He remained broken, but even that was transformed through Christ’s power into spiritual light that shows the way forward.

He still beckons us to follow.  Not as a shining example of human success, but rather as a humble, weather-beaten sign who’s only self-understood value is in to what it points – the Lord and Savior of humankind, Jesus, the Christ.


*The LARGER CATECHISM, The CONSTITUTION of the PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH (U.S.A.) PART I BOOK OF CONFESSIONS

Thoughts on the 2016 Presidential Election (3)

635924331778920089-603679492_tzoneConcluding Thoughts

I have been making the case that neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton deserves to be elected President of the United States.  Unfortunately, one of them will surely win the election.  So, the question becomes: Why not vote for the lesser of two evils?  After all, depending on your political leanings, one of them surely looks worse than the other.

However, in this particular case I don’t believe “choosing the lesser of two evils” is the correct decision.  It’s not because voting for either candidate would be approval for a person who, I believe, will lead this nation further down the path to “strong-(wo)man” rule. I refuse to use my vote as a citizen of the United States of America to affirm any candidate who will purposefully lead us further away from the Constitutional Republic upon which this nation founded.

road-sign

The simple fact is that, as of this election, neither major political party has nominated a person who appears to believe in a constitutional republic.  They, and their supporters appear to rather believe in the candidate’s personal will to power.  I stand in complete opposition to that political model.

hillary-trump-constitution

A Constitutional Republic is a state where the officials are elected as representatives of the people, and must govern according to existing constitutional law that limits the government’s power over citizens.

Some may propose voting for one of the “third party candidates” as a viable alternative.  But voting for a man who apparently takes pride in being a foreign policy “know-nothing,” engages in bizarre personal behavior and enthuses about building a legalized pot business doesn’t meet my bar for support.  Nor does a woman who commits criminal vandalism on the campaign trail in support of “ecological socialism.”

I simply refuse to participate in the destruction of our constitutional republic by voting for the candidate who might move us less-far down the road to the same disastrous destination.  I have voted for the “lesser of evils” on many occasions.  There comes a point where the only moral choice is refusal to participate in a destructive, corrupt election.  For me, that point has arrived.

May our gracious God have mercy on the United States of America.